$250 Billion To $350 Billion? 10 Actual Facts About the Wealth Theft Against Black US Farmers

$250 Billion To $350 Billion? 10 Actual Facts About the Wealth Theft Against Black US Farmers

Black farmers

Griffin McLaurin Jr. points to the land bordering his 10 acres in Mileston, Miss., on May 9, 2001. "Much of that land used to belong to my family," McLaurin said. "Now all I have is these 10 acres that I plant my crops on." McLaurin's father was one of several farmers who lost land to a white car dealer in Holmes County, Miss. The dealer acquired hundreds of acres from Black farmers by loaning them money for used pickup trucks, then foreclosing on them when they missed their payments. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)

Black U.S. farmers have lost 90 percent of their land in the last century, amounting to an estimated $250 billion to $350 billion in accumulated wealth and income – 10 percent of the total wealth held by Black Americans currently, according to the Land Loss and Reparations Project.    

The number of Black farmers in the U.S. peaked in the 1920s at 949,889. Today, just 1.3 percent or 45,508 of the country’s 3.4 million farmers are Black, according to new figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Black farmers own less than 1 percent (0.52 percent) of America’s farmland. By comparison, 95 percent of U.S. farmers are white.

On average, Black farmers who have managed to hold onto their land make less than $40,000 annually compared to more than $190,000 for white farmers. This difference is because on average, farmland owned by Black farmers is about one-quarter the size of farmland owned by white farmers.

Substantial loss of Black farmland since 1920 has been blamed in part on the USDA, which consistently sidelined Black farmers who applied for farm programs and loans. However, other influences that have led to reduced participation by Black farmers include urban migration, foreclosure and land theft as a result of racism.

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Denial of access to land ownership is one of the many ways Black people in the U.S. have been excluded from accumulating wealth, widening the wealth gap between white and Black families.

Here are 10 facts you need to know about the wealth theft against Black U.S. farmers:

1. Black farmers were unfairly treated by USDA

A huge agency backlog of unresolved complaints began to build after the USDA’s Civil Rights Office was closed in 1983, according to a report by Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Black farmers had complained for many years that they were not receiving fair treatment when they applied for loans to local county communities which made the decisions, according to the CRS.

Black farmers alleged they were being denied USDA farm loans or told to wait longer for loan approval than were white farmers. They were denied timely loans and loan restructuring, which led to financial ruin. Lack of access to this funding also made it impossible for Black farmers to expand and grow their holdings and produce. The USDA was unresponsive to the complaints.

2. Black farmers claimed they were sold fake seeds in a plot to steal their land

Black soy farmers in the Mid-South region surrounding Memphis claimed in 2018 that they were sold fake seeds in a plot to steal their land. The farmers became suspicious after their crops yielded five-to-seven bushels, while white farmers with a similar crop and equipment in the same area of the country were harvesting 60-to-100 bushels.

They tested the seed bought from a Stine Seed Company distributor and found that the seed had been tampered with.

“Mother nature doesn’t discriminate,” said Thomas Burrell, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association. “It doesn’t rain on white farms but not Black farms. Insects don’t (only) attack Black farmers’ land…why is it then that white farmers are buying Stine seed and their yield is 60, 70, 80, and 100 bushels of soybeans and Black farmers who are using the exact same equipment with the exact same land, all of a sudden, your seeds are coming up 5, 6, and 7 bushels?”

3. The National Black Farmers Association was founded in 1995 after first discrimination case was won

John Boyd Jr., a fourth-generation Black farmer, was the first-ever Black farmer to file and win a discrimination lawsuit against the USDA. Boyd filed the suit after his loan applications were denied or delayed, year after year, at the Farmers Home Administration, a lending branch of the USDA. This prompted other Black farmers to come forward with their stories and in 1995, Boyd founded the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) after meeting with many Black farmers and hearing similar USDA experiences.

“All these farmers were coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘You think what happened to you is bad? You should hear my story!’” Boyd told The Guardian. “I was just trying to save my farm. But then I saw this was a huge national issue.”

4. The U.S. government settled Black farmers class action suit for $1 billion

Boyd and 400 other black farmers under the NBFA sued the USDA in a landmark lawsuit known as “Pigford vs. Glickman”. The lawsuit alleged that from 1981 to 1997, USDA officials ignored complaints brought to them by Black farmers and that they were denied loans and other support because of rampant discrimination. In 1999, the government settled the case for $1 billion. More than 16,000 Black farmers received $50,000 each.

5. Barack Obama sponsored reopening the Black farmer discrimination case

After eight years of trying to find a sponsor in Congress to reopen the Pigford discrimination case against Black farmers, John Boyd Jr. got then-Sen. Barack Obama to be the lead sponsor of the measure to reopen the case.

In December 2010, as president, Obama signed a bill authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to the late claimants, settling the lawsuit known as Pigford II. The deal, one of the largest civil rights settlements in history, was to compensate Black farmers left out of federal farm loan and assistance programs due to racism.

6. Nearly half of all Black-owned farms are cattle operations

Nearly half (48 percent) of Black-owned farms specialized in cattle and dairy production in 2017 — almost all in beef cattle production, according to a census by the USDA. However, Black livestock farmers tended not ot frequent livestock markets because they got poor prices at the mostly white producers’ arenas, according to Michael Coleman, an NBFA grant recipient.

The USDA census also showed that Black producers were older and more likely to have served or to be serving in the military than U.S. producers overall. Their farms were smaller, and the value of their agriculture sales was less than 1 percent of the U.S. total.

7. Loss of Black-owned land has been blamed on poor succession planning

Some 80 percent of Black-owned land was lost due to poor succession planning that left many of the new owners with no clear titles, according to the Census Bureau. Unclear ownership led to major problems for farmers including not being able to receive a farm serial number from the USDA, which is needed to apply for any federal loan and other financial assistance programs.

In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would be providing $67 million in competitive loans through a new Heirs’ Property Relending Program (HPRP), which aims to help agricultural producers and landowners resolve heirs’ land ownership and succession issues.

“While those affected are in all geographic and cultural areas, many Black farmers and other groups who have experienced historic discrimination have inherited heirs’ property,” said Christy Marshall, acting state executive director for FSA in Florida.

8. Black-owned farmland could expand sevenfold under a new bill

Three Democratic senators hoped to expand Black-owned farmland sevenfold to 32 million acres under a bill to reverse decades of discriminatory practices by the Agriculture Department. A Senate bill, The Justice for Black Farmers Act, would enable Black farmers to acquire up to 160 acres apiece at no charge through a USDA system of land grants.

“When it comes to farming and agriculture, we know that there is a direct connection between discriminatory practices within the USDA and the enormous land loss we have seen among Black farmers in the past century,” said Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the lead sponsor of the Justice for Black Farmers Act bill, in a 2020 Mother Jones interview.

Congress passed the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act in March 2021. One of the biggest pieces of legislation ever passed for Black farmers, it authorized $4 billion under the American Rescue Plan to forgive 120 percent of USDA loan debt for farmers of color.

The payments were supposed to be made in June. But since the act passed, at least 13 lawsuits have been filed across the U.S. claiming reverse discrimination and racism. As a result, three injunctions stopping the payouts have been issued and the money has been in limbo ever since, according to The Grist. Many legal experts say it’s unlikely the debt relief will be paid out as originally authorized. 

9. Black farmers rarely got covid-19-related farm subsidies

While all farmers felt the impact of the revenge tariffs between the U.S. and China during President Donald Trump’s administration, Black farmers faced the brunt of the covid-19 pandemic that followed. They lacked a safety net and did not have access to federal subsidies.  White farmers received 99.5 percent of the subsidies designed to help farmers survive the trade war.

Even when Trump handed out record subsidies to help farmers rebound from the pandemic, African Americans in agriculture largely did not receive this money. The lack of federal relief for Black farmers amplified the stresses they’ve contended with during the pandemic.

10. Black farmers still face discrimination

Discrimination against Black farmers is still ongoing in the public and private sectors. In 2020, the NBFA called out discrimination when it initiated a boycott against agriculture equipment manufacturer John Deere

NBFA alleged that the company did not respond to Black farmers’ calls for service on its machinery in a timely manner and remotely shut off tractors when these farmers tried to repair the equipment on their own.

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